Struggling swimmer who became a Sea Marshal

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07 Dec 2020 | PEOPLE

Struggling swimmer who became a Sea Marshal

// Story by Thrina Tham

// Photos by Chua Soon Lye

English 华文
For exemplary conduct during his NS, CFC (NS) Tan was recognised as one of the Navy’s NSFs of the Year.

Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) Gary Tan is not afraid to admit that he stood frozen with fear at the top of the 5m diving tower for more than an hour back in Basic Military Training (BMT).

He was not a good swimmer and could not tread water to survive. He had no confidence in being able to swim back properly.

Finally, after much support from his batch mates and coaxing from his Master Sergeant, CFC (NS) Tan made the leap.

He would go on to take greater leaps as an Accompanying Sea Security Team (ASSeT) trooper of the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN's) 180 Squadron.

For his hard work and exemplary conduct during his National Service (NS), the 24-year-old is one of the recipients of the Full-time National Servicemen (NSF) of the Year Award 2020.

Marshal of the sea

CFC (NS) Tan graduated from BMT with the Naval Diving Unit's mono-intake batch. While he did not make the cut as a frogman, his training with the elite force helped improve his physical fitness and swimming skills.

He was eventually deployed as an ASSeT Operator, a physically demanding role in its own right.

Known as Sea Marshals, these servicemen work round-the-clock as part of the Maritime Security Task Force to carry out checks and ensure the safe passage of merchant vessels across the Singapore Strait.

[File Photo] An ASSeT Operator climbing up a Jacob's ladder rigged to the Boarding and Search Trainer. The team is trained to carry out checks on vessels plying the Singapore Strait.

Despite the long hours – that can last eight hours, or more, when on duty - CFC (NS) Tan volunteered to extend his service for two months till 24 Aug, to help out during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He joined the team who stayed isolated in base, and continued with boarding operations at sea.

"There was a shortage of manpower due to cohorting measures, (so) I wanted to contribute and support my squadron by adding myself to the operational headcount," he said.

[File Photo] An ASSeT Operator wears his Personal Protective Equipment when boarding a merchant ship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sailing in rough seas

CFC (NS) Tan, who is now an undergraduate at the Singapore Institute of Technology, counts his participation at Exercise Eagle Indopura 2019 as one of his most memorable NS experiences.

The ASSeT Operator was then the assistant team leader of the boarding team, despite being the only NSF.

The RSN team had to work with a team from the Indonesian Navy to plan and conduct a boarding operation. "It was intimidating at first as I was the youngest member and inexperienced in overseas exercises," he recounted.

Ex Eagle Indopura, held from 18 to 25 July 2019, saw the RSN and the Indonesian Navy working together to track a vessel of interest and conduct boarding operations.

On the day of the exercise, the team had to cope with a challenging sea state as they approached the simulated commercial vessel on board a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat.

"The height of the waves was about as tall as me and it was like we were riding a roller coaster against the current. We had to grab our seats tightly throughout the sail," said CFC (NS) Tan.

It was a sense of achievement when the bilateral team successfully completed their mission. "Overall, the experience was eye-opening and I learnt from the Indonesian boarding team...while sharing my ops knowledge too."

Learning from others is also how CFC (NS) Tan has bettered himself throughout his NS.

On his NSF of the Year recognition, he said: "Winning an award never crossed my mind as an NSF, as I do not necessarily have the best fitness or knowledge. But I always believe in putting my 100 per cent in any task handed to me."

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